Review article: Diagnosis and investigation of irritable bowel syndrome

Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2021 Dec;54 Suppl 1:S33-S43. doi: 10.1111/apt.16597.

Christopher J Black 1 2


Author information

1Leeds Gastroenterology Institute, St. James's University Hospital, Leeds, UK.

2Leeds Institute of Medical Research at St. James's, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK.


Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder of gut-brain interaction. It is defined by the Rome criteria as the presence of abdominal pain, related to defaecation, associated with a change in stool form and/or frequency. The approach to diagnosis and investigation of suspected IBS varies between clinicians and, due in part to the uncertainty that can surround the diagnosis, many still consider it to be a diagnosis of exclusion. However, exhaustive investigation is both unnecessary and costly, and may also be counterproductive. Instead, physicians should aim to make a positive diagnosis, based on their clinical assessment of symptoms, and limit their use of investigations. The yield of routine blood tests in suspected IBS is low overall, but normal inflammatory markers may be reassuring. All patients should have serological testing for coeliac disease, irrespective of their predominant stool form. Routine testing of stool microbiology or faecal elastase is unnecessary; however, all patients with diarrhoea aged <45 should have a faecal calprotectin or a similar marker measured which, if positive, should lead to colonoscopy to exclude possible inflammatory bowel disease. Colonoscopy should also be undertaken in any patient reporting alarm symptoms suggestive of colorectal cancer, and in those whose presentation raises suspicion for microscopic colitis. Testing for bile acid diarrhoea should be considered for patients with IBS with diarrhoea where available. Hydrogen breath tests for lactose malabsorption or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth have no role in the routine assessment of suspected IBS. Adopting a standardised approach to the diagnosis and investigation of IBS will help to promote high-quality and high-value care for patients overall.

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